In the liner notes of Embraced (Pablo Live, 1978), Mary Lou Williams defends the late music of John Coltrane thus ..."the healing power comes from the deep feeling that is in jazzthe feeling of the Blues which is characteristic of all good jazz no matter what form it takes. Even John Coltrane's music was never without this feeling." Embraced was a duo recording Williams made with the avant garde champion Cecil Taylor. She goes on to write, "In the music of all the giants of all four eras you find the feeling of the bluesthis is the foundation, as far as feeling, in even the most way out sounds of good jazzfrom the beginning through Charlie Parker, Dizzyeven Coltrane." We revisit that quote because Mary Lou Williams (19101981) lived and performed in all four eras which she defined as 'the Spirituals,' 'Ragtime,' 'Kansas City Swing,' and then 'Bop or Modern Jazz.' Born in Atlanta, but raised in Pittsburgh, Williams would fall under the spell of Jelly Roll Morton and James P. Johnson's music. She endured the barrier of being a woman in the music world, an obstacle fellow Pittsburgh native and homosexual pianist/composer/arranger Billy Strayhorn conquered. Strayhorn would go on to work closely with Duke Ellington, while Williams would contribute music to Ellington's bands but would suffer from lack of recognition and compensation.
Maybe this brief background information amplifies the significance of the Umlaut Big Band's tribute to Williams. Throughout jazz history, her compositions and arrangements can be heard in Kansas City with Andy Kirk and his Orchestra, Ellington's bands, Benny Goodman, and later in New York where she mingled with Thelonious Monk, Herbie Nichols, Hank Jones, and Bud Powell. Her music bridged stride piano to bebop to avant-garde and were covered by everyone from Oliver Nelson to Charlie Parker and Sun Ra. Like Melba Liston, Williams endured despite the inherent misogyny, chauvinism, and racism of her time.
While Williams' music has been championed by trumpeter Dave Douglas on Soul On Soul (RCA Victor, 2000) and the late pianist Geri Allen on Zodiac Suite: Revisited (Mary Records, 2006) and Celebrating Mary Lou Williams (Intakt, 2011), there has been nothing as complete and meticulous as Mary's Ideas. Taken from her extensive personal archive at the Institute of Jazz Studies in Newark, NJ, the Umlaut Big Band performs compositions and arrangements from manuscripts and also completes pieces from fragments and diaries. Like their previous treatment of the music of Don Redman's Big Band The King of Bungle Bar (Umlaut, 2018), the performance is crisp and swinging. The band traces William's history from Kirk's band to a chamber orchestra rendition of her "Zodiac Suite" and "Roll 'Em" with a chamber orchestra, plus her "History Of Jazz For Wind Symphony." Along the way the Umlaut Big Band plays music from and for Ellington, bebop, boogie woogie, and spiritual jazz. This is one brilliant and astonishing document.
CD1: History of Jazz for Wind Symphony: Introduction – Suffering; VARIATIONS IN THE BLUES:
Chunka Lunk; New Musical Express; Just an Idea (Mary’s Idea); Medi No.2; Truth; Aries; KAYCEE:
The Count; Harmony Blues; Mary’s Idea (1930); After You’ve Gone; Body and Soul; Mary Steps
Out; PRELUDE TO DUKE – Pt. 1: Gjon Mili’s Jam Session; Sweet Georgia Brown; Stardust (big
band version); Lonely Moments (1943); Sleepy Valley HAMILTON TERRACE: Kool;
Conversation; Scorpio; Untitled Incidental Music (excerpts). CD2: PRELUDE TO DUKE – Pt. 2: Fill
the Cup; Blue Skies; Joe; O.W.; NEW BOTTLE, OLD WINE: Mary’s Idea (1938); Stardust (trio);
Lonely Moments (1946); Ghost of Love; BOOGIES: Fifth Dimension; Earl’s Boogie; Roll ‘Em;
ZODIAC SUITE: Taurus; Aquarius; Virgo; ETERNAL YOUTH: History of Jazz for Wind Symphony:
Spiritual #1 – Spiritual #2; Fandangle; Zoning Fungus II; Chief Natoma From Tacoma; Shafi; Rosa